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Nanotechnology R&D in premier Indian research institutes is blossoming thanks to international and local collaborations between industry and academicians. Optimists believe that this would lead to an explosion of new and innovative products and technology in near to medium term. Two key barriers, cultural and financial, are identified and discussed to temper the enthusiasm.
April 28th, 2008
Would public research investment create innovative Indian nanotech companies
The Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay is partnering with the University of Cambridge for research and exchange of students in the field of nanoscience and nanotechnology. The research activities will be funded through Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, which will make an initial investment of 800,000 GBP over five years.
Similar collaborations between leading international and Indian research institutes have been formalized. Indian institute of Science, Bangalore has been at the forefront with research tieups with institutes like MIT, Berkeley, IMEC, Stanford etc. Traditionally strong relations between IISc and numerous Japanese institutes have been extended to include areas like nano-materials, nano-electronics. Collaborations with Italian institutes extend in the area of photonics and nano-optics. Various IITs have forged relations with institutes from US, UK, Japan, and several European countries in areas like nano-electronics, renewable energy and energy storage, nano-materials, nano-devices, nano-manufacturing and drug delivery.
Academic-industry collaboration too looks to be picking up with global giants like Applied Materials, Boeing, General Motors, Cookson Electronics, Samsung etc tying up with different Indian institutes to set up specialized research centers focused on specific research projects and objectives.
Based on evidence above, nanotech research seems to be in good health in the country. This is in accordance with the general trends that we see across industries. A lot of companies are setting up their R&D shops in India to take advantage of the technical talent pool available in the country. This talent pool is further strengthened by the phenomenon of "reverse brain drain" as experienced scientists and managers return to India after successful stints abroad.
Given the state of R&D, the natural expectation would be to see a number of innovative products and companies out of Indian shores in short to mid term. However, I choose to play the devils' advocate. I have two major arguments: one cultural and other financial. Historically, Indians has displayed a higher affinity towards science as compared to engineering. The Indian culture strongly promotes abstract thinking, philosophical discussions, and conceptualization. Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen discusses this aspect of Indian culture in great detail in his book, "the argumentative Indian". The next step, taking science to the world of engineering, though, is not one of the greatest Indian strength. Engineering involves filling in the details, going through the numbers, conducting repetitive experiments, testing, validating and iterating the whole process. This is quite frustrating for most Indian psyche. The journey from a concept and a product in involves more brawn than brains and not very palatable to Indian culture. To supplement my argument, consider this fact. India has produced some of the world's best physicists, chemists and mathematicians (Sir Raman, Aryabhatt, Chadrasekhar, C. N. R. Rao to name a few prominent names). World renowned engineers from India though remain in short supply. At the risk of being severely criticized, I venture to say that India is not best suited for engineering and manufacturing kind of industries and its strength lies in providing services and knowledge.
The second part of my argument is concerned with availability of funds. As a rule of thumb, if it takes 1 dollar to do research, it takes additional 10 dollars to do development and a further 100 dollars to do product marketing and sales. Cambridge Commonweath Trust may well provide 800,000 pounds for research, where is the rest of 100 million pounds for a nanotech start up going to come from? As discussed earlier in these columns, Indian VC community is very small and stays far away from anything involving technology that is non-IT. Without a local VC leading the investment, oversees investors would rather relocate the company to their preferred geography. For this to happen, either the company/technology should either be a particularly promising one, or else the promoters should be willing to move base on their own accord. This adds extra complication like disrupted personal lives, integration into a new business environment etc. More commonly we see technologies developed in Indian universities transferred to foreign companies and the products shipped back into Indian market. This is the preferred and traditional route to (globally) commercialize innovative Indian R&D. Experiments involving university spin-offs, start-ups, technology transfer to local businesses have remain limited to local markets primarily due to limited funds to launch products globally and to some extent with the size of the dream of Indian entrepreneurs. Having said that, one also needs to note that Indians are increasingly dreaming big and risk taking appetite is increasing greatly. The moot point is "Is the change fast enough to yield the desired results in 5-7 years or not".
Please send your feedback, ideas, and suggestions to Vivek Srivastava at .
Vivek hold a Ph. D. in materials science and has published over a dozen papers in international journals and contributed to international conferences and seminars. He has interests in commercialization of nanotechnology & new ventures with innovative business models to exploit the advantages India offers. He consults existing businesses to grow and expand in new technology areas, and serves as mentor to budding entrepreneurs. His current research interest are "severe plastic deformation methods for production of bulk nanomaterials" and "Role of industry dynamics on making R&D funding decisions".